Born in Tokyo 1898. Educated at the Aohashi Western Painting Research Institute, Tokyo. About 1916 works as newspaper illustrator in Kobe. First experience in film 1922 as assistant director before directing films himself in 1923. In late 1920s makes several left-wing films which are severely censored. In 1940 joins the Cabinet Film Committee and publicly advocates films with strong nationalist sentiment. After WW2 is elected president of the Japanese directors association 1949. Joins Daiei film company 1952 and remains with them until his death from leukemia in 1956. One of the major Japanese directors in the first half of the 20thC - described by Dudley Andrew as "like John Ford, one of the few directorial geniuses to play a key role in the industry" (p. 376). Unfortuantely over 50 of his 85 films have been lost as a result of studio fires, the ravages of war or poor preservation methods. Many of his films show an interest in those groups which were marginalised or exploited in Japanese society such as women, traveling artists, feudal servants or slaves, thus earning him the label of "left-wing" filmmaker. Made films in the areas of literary adaptations, historical dramas, proto-feminist critiques, Meiji-period pieces. Well read in 19thC European novels (such as Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant) and the major Meiji novelists.
During WW2 M made films for the military regime, mainly historical dramas with apparently no political content. Raises the problem of a great artist "appearing" to collaborate with an oppressive regime. Is there any harm in a famous filmmaker making escapist historical dramas, thus assisting in the propagnada of the regime by distracting viewers from the war effort or by reinforcing the duty of blind loyalty as depicted in the classic 47 Roniin story? During the American occupation he was encouraged to make films about the situation of women in Japanese society as part of the democratization of post-war Japanese society. Uses period pieces as a way of exposing the remnants of feudal belief and institutions in modern Japanese society, especially the oppression of woman, the 95% of the population who were victims of the samurai system, and even the samurai class itself (the members of which are brutalized and personally corrupted by the life of violence they lead).
Films: Sisters of the Gion (1936); Osaka Elegy (1936) about the ruthless behaviour of an Osaka businessman who seduces a switchboard operator, banned after 1940 for "decadent tendancies"; Three Generations of Danjuro (1944), Miyamoto Musashi (1944), The Famous Sword Bijomaru (1944), Victory Song (1944), Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) about a wood-block printer who rebels agains the feudal society in which he lives; The Life of Oharu (1952) the history of a woman forced into prostitution by one mistake; Ugetsu (1953) set in the civil war period of the 16thC, dream-like film which shows how war corrupts everything around it, in this case the war-induced high prices for pottery cause an ambitious potter to gamble everything on war profits; Sansho the Bailiff (1954) an attack on the institution of slavery and the impossibility of reform from above.
Joan Mellon summarises the story:
... (the) great national favourite... concerns forty-seven samurai left masterless ronin by an unjust incident which forced their master, Lord Asano, to commit seppuku in disgrace. Because Asano had not given him the appropriate bribes, Lord Kira retaliated by failing to instruct Asano in the etiquette necessary to receive an Imperial ambassador. In anger, the severely provoked Asano later drew his sword against Kira in the castle itself, a forbidden place. For this act, he was ordered to kill himself. Led by Asanao's chief retainer, Kuranosuke Oishi, the forty-seven wait, carefully disguising their intention by leading dissipated lives, entering trades, and seeming to disperse. When the opportunity arises, they attack and behead Lord Kira, avenging their dead master at last.
The plans and enactment of the revenge require the men to share their deepest feelings and commitments, renouncing, like Christ, all personal and family ties. No relationship with a woman could approximate the spiritual communion these men discover together as they act in concert in a common cause. United in a struggle they know will lead to their deaths, the forty-seven find solace and comfort in being pledged together in the same noble end. (Genji's Door, p. 31).
She believes that not only does the story of The Forty-seven Ronin extol the virtues of blind loyalty to one's feudal lord but also reinforces the marginalization of Japanese women who have no part to play whatsoever in the ronin's conspiracy for revenge. M, according to Mellon, goes through the motions of adhering to wartime government policy (in this case celebrating the feudal past and the duty of blind loyalty, showing regret for the weakening of the warrior spirit caused by 70-80 years of peace under the Tokugawas) until the ending of part 2. Instead of showing the ritual suicide of the heroic Ronin M shows a brave young woman, betrothed to one of the Ronin, demanding an explanation of why she cannot see her finance before he kills himself. She is denied the opportunity of seeing him (his resolve might weaken) and so kills herself. M's radical departure from the traditional story is to show her suicide on camera but not that of the 47 Ronin. (Mellon, pp. 32-4).
Other versions of the story: the film by Hiroshi Inagaki, Chusingura (1962); the play by John Masefield, The Faithful (1915).
One of the most celebrated examples of loyalty and warrior ethics in Japanese history. Event remembered in Japan on 14 December, although took place following month. Has been made into over 100 plays, stories and films. The most famous version of the story is the puppet play Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (1748) which has been adapted for Kabuki performance.
A vendetta which began in 1701 was the result of an infraction of rigid protocol at the shogun's court in Edo (Tokyo). The Imperial court in Kyoto would sent envoys with New Year's greetings to the shogun's court. In 1701 one of the shogun's representatives selected to receive the Imperial envoys was Lord Asano Naganori (1655-1701), Lord of Ako. As he was inexperienced in the protocol required for these ceremonies, he asked the shogun's chief of protocol, Lord Kira Yoshinaka, for advice. As Asano did not know he was supposed to bribe Kira when asking for such advice, he was treated very rudely by Kira, and three days into the ceremonies he drew his sword in anger against Kira in one of the corridors of the shogun's castle at Edo. This was such a serious offence that Asano was orderd to commit suicide and have his property confiscated. 47 Ako samurai warriors vowed to avenge their master's death because Kira had gone unpunished and their domain had been confiscated, thus making them Ronin. The leader of the group of disaffected samurai was Oishi Yoshio who advocated restraint and not immediate reprisal until the outcome of an appeal by Asano's younger brother to have the domain restored. When this failed Oishi decided to go ahead with the reprisal against Lord Kira. Two years after their Lord's death the 46 Ronin (the oldest in his 80s dropped out at the last minute, the others ranged in age from 15 to 77) stormed Kira's heavily guarded castle in the early hours of 31 January, 1703 and assassinated Lord Kira. They then decapitated Kira and took his head 5 miles to the grave of their Lord Asano.
The actions of the 47 Ronin posed a serious problem for the shogun (compare the actions of Antigone vs King Creon) because the demands of private morality (samurai loyalty to their feudal lord) clashed with the demands of public law and order. The matter was debated by leading Confucian scholars, one of whom advised that to both uphold private duty and public order the Ronin should be allowed to take their own lives, which they dutifully did in February 1703. They then became heroes (gishi - righteous warriors) in the eyes of the public which was attracted by the daring raid of Kira's castle and the selfless courage of the Ronin. The Ronin's behaviour reinforced traditional notions of samurai warrior ethics at a time when the warrior code had become much less honoured as a result of 100 years of peace since the end of the civil war period. During the Tokugawa period samurais had become more like scholars and bureaucrats than fighting men. Ever since, the 47 Ronin have been held up as models for "righteous patriots" and loyal subjects, especially in time of war.
As in Nazi Germany, the film industry in Japan was co-opted into the war effort, both in preparing the masses for war before 1941 and maintaining that support during the war, especially when the tide turned against the Japanese. As early as 1940 the role the communication and arts industries would have to play in the promotion of the Japanese national spirit (kokutai) were clearly stated:
Dramatic art must forget the old individualistic and class attitudes and must begin to realize that it has a new cultural role to perform in the total program of our new national consciousness. Actors are no longer to serve a class but the nation and they must act as persons who are part of the whole national entity. They must have the determination to make the cultural wealth of (their art) available to every group in the population. For this reason, the concentration of culture in the big cities should be eliminated. (Quoted in Mellon, p. 138).
Consequently, war films had to show how all classes could equally devote themselves to serving the Emperor (especially dying for the Emperor's cause), selfless heroes who did not fear death, recreations of victories such as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many topics were banned outright as suitable subjects for films - depicting poverty, the lives of the rich, women smoking or visiting cafes, physical intimacy between men and women, depicting rebels or renegades or eccentric individuals, the use of foreign expressions.
Another type of film (in addition to war films or explicit war propaganda) which was permitted were films about ordinary family life ("home dramas") in which the wisdom and nobility of the patriarchal father was shown. E.g. Ozu's There Was a Father (1942).
Mellon argues that Mizoguchi adopted the tactic of "disarming" the military authorites by willingly making approved "potboilers" in the hope that they would not look too closely at his other films in which his anti-feudal and anti-military views could be expressed. The former included The Song of the Camp (1938) about a military song which won a competition in a newspaper; Song of Victory (1945) which Mellon describes crytically as "entirely forgettable" (p. 160); Myamoto Musashi the Swordsman (1945) about the life of the most famous samurai who invented two-sword fighting; and Genroku Chusingura (The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin) (1941-42) which pleased the government overall but whose ending contained a twist; and a number of Meiji costume dramas "apparently inoccuous" - The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Woman of Osaka (1940), The Life of an Actor (1941) which M descibed as "my way of resisting". The latter (films with a hidden anti-militarist message) included The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) about a Kabuki actor who struggles to rise in a rigidly controlled profession.
Quote from the classic version of the story of the 47 Ronin which illustrates the motivation of the samurais for revenge and the defence of their honour:
Wakasanosuke: ...In the presence of the assembled samurai from the capital he (Moronao) abused and railed at me, singling me out because of my youth. I was ready to slash him in two but, out of respect for the shogun's command, I time and time again restrained myself. Tomorrow I will not bear it any longer. I will display my mettle as a samurai by putting him to shame before His Excellency, and then cutting him down. Under no circumstances are you to interfere. My wife always calls me short-tempered, and you too have remonstrated with me. I have recognized this failing of mine again and again, but think what it does to a soldier's spirit to have this frustrated rage keep accumulating inside him. I am not unaware that this will bring extinction to my household and despair to my wife, but as a samurai I owe the service of my sword to the god of war. I shall not be dying on the field of battle, but if I can kill one man, Moronao, it will benefit the nation. That is more important than the disgrace to my family. I am sure people will say of me that Wakasanosuke ruined his life becasue of his short temper, and that he was a reckless and turbulent samurai. That is why I have told you the whole story. (Keene, p. 44)
Dudley Andrew, "Mizoguchi", in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 2: Directors, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 375-377.
Joan Mellon, The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan Through its Cinema (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).
Ugestu. Kenji Mizoguchi, Director, ed. Keiko I. McDonald (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993).
Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) A Puppet Play (1748), trans. Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971).
Mikiso Hane, "Forty-Seven Ronin Incident," Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, pp. 327-8
1. The fluctuating number of "The 47 Ronin" - they start out with 300, 54 are left to swear a blood oath to carry out Oishi's instructions, 47 plan the assassination, 46 actually do the deed (the 80+ year old pulls out out the last minute).
2. The factions which divided the samurai class - those who have become effete scholars and bureaucrats (Lord Kira who does not dare pull his sword to defend himself) and those who adhere to the old warrior ethic and who are willing to defend their honour.
3. The expressions of regret by sympathetic samurais and Lords about the weakening of the warrior ethic since the end of the civil wars. Assertion that "surrendering without a fight is not possible to samurai". Useful as propaganda for the Japanese government in WW2.